I’ve just released a podcast episode with a friend of mine, Kale Zelden, in which we have a conversation about a broad range of topics: the self-conscious church; distinctive garb and priestly identity; the church as an expert in humanity; the naked public square and moral unbelievers; self-exploitation, social media and grifters; the institutional and the charismatic; the long wait for renewal; and Catholic identity and liturgy.
On the fifteenth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s death, here’s the story of the time I got to meet the Pope.
En route to a semester of seminary studies in Jerusalem back in 1996, I spent a week in Rome, and had the chance to see the Pope John Paul II twice… once at a Wednesday audience, and once at a Sunday Mass celebrated at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence.
Meeting the Pope was without question one of the happiest moments of my life. He is the kindest, warmest person I have ever met, to say nothing of his intelligence, virtue and holiness. I have great respect for the man, even from a merely human point of view… and so to meet him, after reading so much of his work, was a real privilege.
The day before I met him, I thought long and hard about what I would say to him. I was wearing a clerical shirt with a Roman collar, so he would already know that I was a seminarian. I couldn’t think of anything for a while, and thought I might tell him my name, where I was from, and show him a picture of my family. But then I decided I needed to keep it simple, because I’d probably just trip over my tongue anyway.
During the Mass, just before I met him, he seemed very frail and weak. But when he walked around afterward, he didn’t seem weak at all. He passed by rather quickly; there was just enough time to make eye contact, and then to reach down to kiss his papal ring. Then he was on to the next person.
I thought I had lost my opportunity to say something to him. But I decided to speak up anyway, even though he had moved on. And so I said, not very loudly, “I love you, Papa.” He heard me, returned to me and took my hand again, looking at me in his gentle way. He then turned to my teacher, a priest on the seminary faculty, and asked with surprise: “Americano?” When my teacher confirmed this, the Pope looked back at me and said, “Good… good.”
I was so grateful for the chance to say these words to the Pope in person. Here he was—the philosopher, the poet, the actor, the pastor, the courageous shepherd, the contemplative, a true friend of God—standing before me, and I was able to express my affection for him. And it wasn’t simply my affection for him, but for the Church he serves, and for Christ from whom he received his commission of service. For me, it was more than a pious sentiment, it was a commitment… to Christ, to the Church, and to him as chief shepherd of the Church.
When my faith grows weak, or when temptation or doubt crowd in, I often bring this moment of commitment before the eyes of my heart. And I remember the way I was sincerely and affectionately received by this giant of our faith. To me, his whole visage proclaims the first words of Christ after the resurrection, and the first words of his papacy: Be not afraid.
I meant to write a post about my experiences with Archbishop Flynn last week, but instead chose to prioritize posting audio from some of his retreat conferences.
And as I began to think about him, I struggled with conflicting emotions, given the circumstances of recent years. I’m not writing today as a journalist but as a friend. I’m not here to point out his shortcomings, still less to explain them away.
Over the years, I told Flynn a number of things about the abuses happening in the seminary. He always listened, but he never offered a word of response and never promised to do anything. He allowed me to be vulnerable in this way, but would never reciprocate.
I remember his arrival in the Twin Cities vividly, because I was in my first year of seminary at the time.
As I became acquainted with him personally, and particularly as he served as my spiritual director for two years after I left the seminary, I became more familiar with the warmth of his personality; it was inseparable from his commitment to prayer. The words which G.K. Chesterton once attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi could have come from Archbishop Flynn:
Be not troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.
Saint Francis of Assisi, as quoted in G.K. Chesterton’s Life of Saint Francis, speaking to a friar struggling between humility and morbidity
His warmth of character and his sense of humor made me comfortable in his presence.
What is the meaning of comfort? How does it come about? Certainly not by reasoning and reckoning. Advice and argument are no comfort: they leave us cold. They leave man alone in his need and suffering. Nothing comes to him from them. But comfort is full of life; it has an immediacy and an intimacy that makes all things new. To comfort, you must love. You must be open and enter into the other’s heart. You must be observant; you must have the free and sensitive heart that finds the paths of life with quiet assurance; you must be able to discover the sore and withered places. You must have the subtlety and strength to penetrate the living center, to the deep source of life that has dried up. The heart must combine with this source of life, must summon it to life again so that it can flow through all the deserts and ruins within.
Monsignor Romano Guardini
He also had a great love for the priesthood, and for the celibate life as Christian witness. His presentation to the seminarians about celibacy was the best thing we received on the subject.
Defining celibacy only as giving up sex is just as unrealistic as seeing marriage [only] as giving up all other women. Neither marriage nor celibacy is liveable without a commitment of love so deep as to cause one to want to give up all else.
Bishop Harry Flynn, “Celibacy: A Way to Love”, Address to the 1990 World Synod of Bishops
He wrote me a good number of letters over the years. A few highlights from the correspondence we shared:
Every once in a while, it is good to step back from our intended paths and give some thought to what we are about…. I am convinced that the unhappiness that seems to pervade in so many hearts in today’s society is because people do not take time to listen to the Lord, and the Lord will always tell us how much he loves us, but he will always keep us on the right path. (May 13, 1996)
Keep searching for the will of God. Our Lord will let you know what His will for you is, and then have the courage to embrace it. (May 29, 1997)
I want to impress upon you once again the importance of prayer in your everyday life. Find some time when you can be alone with our Lord. Then ask Him what He wants to do with your life, and then learn to listen for the answer, and you will find it within your own heart…. Our Lord has a plan for you, and eventually that plan will be revealed to you, and you will have the courage to embrace it, and do it, whatever it might be. (December 23, 1997)
Now the archbishop has moved from one life to the next. From my point-of-view, the transition seems like the fulfillment of the kind of life he lived.
Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with him who is the source of life. If we are in relation with him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live.’
Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, paragraph 27
May you find the life you so often reminded us to seek, Archbishop Flynn. And may the angels lead you into Paradise.
Bishop Robert Barron has written a short and incisive letter in response to the sexual abuse crisis that has roiled the Catholic Church in recent decades.
The first letter of Archbishop Vigano, released a year ago (August 22, 2018), rocked the Church like an earthquake, with (then Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick as its epicenter. The aftershocks have reverberated daily, as scandal after scandal has been unveiled in dioceses around the globe.
The response by the institutional church over the past year has been—at best—lethargic. At worst, the response has been defensive, regressive, and surrounded by a culture of silence all the way up to the Pope:
“I read the statement this morning. I read it and sincerely I must tell you, and all those who are interested: read it yourselves carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word on this. I believe the memo speaks for itself, and you are capable enough as journalists to draw your own conclusions. This is an act of trust: when some time has passed and you have drawn conclusions, perhaps I will speak. But I ask that you use your professional maturity in doing this: it will do you good, really.”
Pope Francis, on the papal flight back to Rome from the World Meeting of Families, Sunday, 26 August 2018
It is within this context that Bishop Barron has written a Letter to a Suffering Church. It is divided into five short chapters:
Chapter One: The Devil’s Masterpiece
Chapter Two: Light from Scripture
Chapter Three: We Have Been Here Before
Chapter Four: Why Should We Stay?
Chapter Five: The Way Forward
I would love to see more pastoral letters from bishops written with such clarity, insight and economy of language.
I especially appreciated chapter two, as I found the discussion based on the Old Testament passages to be very apropos and insightful. And I was deeply moved and motivated by this passage in the last chapter, The Way Forward:
…Something new must come forth, something specifically fitted to our time and designed to respond to the particular corruption that currently besets us. Above all, we need saints, marked by holiness of course, but also by intelligence, an understanding of the culture, and the willingness to try something fresh. Somewhere in the Church right now is a new Benedict, a new Francis, a new Ignatius, a new Teresa of Kolkata, a new Dorothy Day. This is your time!
I hope every Catholic will take the time to read this book and review the related resources over at SufferingChurchBook.com. If possible, why not start a study group to discuss the book? While I recommend ordering the materials from the Word on Fire website, you can also purchase a Kindle version of the book for one dollar on Amazon.
Bishop Barron’s Prayer for a Suffering Church
Lord Jesus Christ, through your Incarnation you accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. Setting aside the glory of your divinity, you met us face to face in the vulnerability of our humanity.
Though without sin, you accepted sinners, offering forgiveness and placing yourself before even the most unworthy as a servant and a friend. You became small and weak in the estimation of the powerful, so that you might elevate to glory the small and weak of the world.
Your descent into our nature was not without risk, as it exposed you to the assaults of the darkest and most terrifying of humanity’s fallen desires—our cruelty and narrowness, our deceptions and our denials. All this culminated in the cross, where your divine love was met with the full fury of our malice, our violence, and our estrangement from your grace.
You offered yourself to us with innocence and receptivity, and this was met with the abuse of your body, humiliation and mockery, betrayal and isolation, torture and death. All this—even the dereliction of feeling abandoned by God—you accepted. You became a victim, so that all those victimized since the beginning of the world would know you as their advocate. You went into the darkness, so that all those compelled into the dark by human wickedness would discover in you a radiant light.
Grant we pray, O Lord, healing for all victims of sexual abuse. Purify your Church of corruption. Bring justice to those who have been wronged. Grant consolation to all who are afflicted. Cast your light to banish the shadows of deception. Manifest to all your advocacy of those who have been so cruelly hurt, and your judgment upon those who, having perpetrated such crimes, remain unrepentant. Compel those in your Church whom you have entrusted to safeguard the innocent and act on behalf of the victims to be vigilant and zealous in their duties. Restore faith to those from whom it has been stolen, and hope to those who have despaired.
Christ the Victim, we call out to you!
Strengthen your faithful to accept the mission placed before us, a mission of holiness and truth. Inspire us to become advocates of those who have been harmed. Grant us strength to fight for justice. Impart to us courage so that we might forthrightly face the challenges to come. Raise up saints from your Church, and grant us the grace to become the saints you desire us to be. This we ask of you, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
After seeing this story out of Buffalo, New York in yesterday’s news, it seems to me that I need to get my novel and screenplay about seminary life (Saint Judas) written at the first opportunity. As it turns out, life is sometimes more outlandish than fiction.
What I learned from my seminary experience was basically this:
1) it was an institution riddled with people who didn’t know who they were
2) since they didn’t know who they were, they were insecure and shifty; in a word: they lacked integrity
3) these people would say one thing and do another, thus fostering a climate of distrust
4) at that point, Satan could schedule a long vacation… he had other people to carry out his charism of sowing division
In shorthand: identity issues led to integrity issues, and integrity issues led to trust issues. It’s as old as Genesis 3.
Below is a playlist of songs that represent different moments in the screenplay I’m assembling.